Head to one of these protected properties at night for a quiet escape that will leave you feeling in awe of nature’s beauty.
America’s natural wonders captivate millions of visitors every year, but their popularity — especially when safety concerns put a pause on international travel — means you’ll likely encounter crowds during your visit. If you want to avoid hordes of tourists while reconnecting with nature, skip outdoor sanctuaries that are only open during the day and instead opt for an evening of stargazing at an IDA International Dark Sky Park. At the 80-plus properties around the world with Dark Sky Park status, you’ll encounter little (if any) light pollution, so you’ll enjoy an incredible view of the night sky. To help you decide which of America’s nearly 60 Dark Sky Parks you should visit, U.S. News rounded up several superb options for seeing stars. Read on to find the perfect Dark Sky Park for your next getaway. (Note: Some of the destinations mentioned may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Check with the CDC, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Great Basin National Park: Nevada
For a stargazing adventure filled with all kinds of space-themed activities, travel a few miles west of the Nevada-Utah border to Great Basin National Park. Located about halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, this national park — which is free to visit year-round — features topography that helps shield it from light pollution. As a result, conditions are ideal for stargazing. Travelers can observe the night sky from popular vantage points like Mather Overlook and the Baker Archaeological Site using their own equipment — the National Park Service recommends bringing a pair of 7-by-50 binoculars, a red flashlight and a star chart. Or, they can participate in one of the park’s astronomy programs, which typically occur on Saturday nights from May through October. Available programs include stargazing train excursions, guided full moon hikes and an annual astronomy festival. Keep in mind, charges may apply for select activities. After hours of stargazing, bed down at the 10-room Stargazer Inn, a visitor favorite that sits close to the park’s entrance.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: Okeechobee, Florida
Visit one of Florida’s largest state parks to see bright stars above native palmetto trees and grasses. In this 54,000-acre park situated 63 miles west of Vero Beach, you’ll catch a glimpse of stars, planets and more once the sun sets. However, after-hours access is limited to select visitors, so plan accordingly. Unless you have a Florida State Parks Family Annual Pass and request an after-hours permit, the only way to visit after sunset is to camp at the on-site Kilpatrick Hammock Campground. Reserve one of five astronomy pad sites, which cost $16 per night (excluding taxes and a nonrefundable $6.70 reservation fee) year-round, to enjoy optimal stargazing conditions. But remember, these sites enforce special rules to minimize light pollution, such as no campfires and red spectrum light-only policies, and campsite rates do not cover the park’s $4 per vehicle entrance fee. Once you settle into your space, look for Jupiter and Saturn amid the stars. You may also spot the International Space Station, depending on when you visit. Use NASA’s Spot the Station tracking map to locate the space station.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve: Idaho
If you want your surroundings to resemble what you may see up above, head to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in southern Idaho. At this preserve roughly 65 miles southeast of Sun Valley, you’ll find more than 53,000 acres of volcanic terrain that looks like it belongs on the moon. But don’t limit yourself to hiking its rugged trails and exploring its cool caves during the day. Throughout summer, the preserve offers ranger-led full moon hikes, while spring and fall are when the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society hosts its popular star parties on-site. Loaner telescopes and astronomy experts are on hand for every Star Party to help you navigate the skies. Should you prefer stargazing on your own, pack a pair of binoculars to use while camping at the preserve’s Lava Flow Campground. All 42 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis from May to November and generally cost $8 or $15 per night. An additional $20 per vehicle fee applies for all visitors.
Big Bend National Park: Texas
Big Bend National Park’s isolated location in western Texas by the U.S.-Mexico border makes it an ideal place to go stargazing. At this roughly 801,000-acre swath of protected Chihuahuan Desert land, you’ll discover few tourists and little light pollution, so you can gaze at the night sky without worrying about obstructions. The park charges a $30 per vehicle entrance fee and is open year-round. Plus, it offers all kinds of night sky programs to enhance your experience. Attend one of Big Bend’s star parties, go for a guided moonlight walk or simply pull out a pair of binoculars and look for meteors and constellations like Sagittarius. If you have time, also check out the McDonald Observatory, a research institution situated 113 miles northwest of the park that hosts its own star parties every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night for a $20 or $25 per person fee. Then, head to Big Bend’s Chisos Mountain Lodge to retire for the night. The 72-room property offers a variety of accommodation options, including rooms and cottages.
Natural Bridges National Monument: Lake Powell, Utah
While Natural Bridges National Monument may be best known as the home of Sipapu Bridge, the second-largest natural bridge in the U.S., you’d be remiss if you didn’t plan an epic stargazing outing during your visit. Because of its remote location on southeastern Utah’s Colorado Plateau, the monument boasts some of the darkest skies in the country, giving you the opportunity to see up to 15,000 stars on any given night. In fact, Natural Bridges’ stargazing conditions are so impressive, it was the first destination in the world to earn Dark Sky Park status. For the best viewing conditions and the chance to attend a Star Party or a ranger-led stargazing seminar, visit in the summer. On-site lodging options are limited to the small campground by the visitor center, which allows visitors to claim its 13 campsites on a first-come, first-served basis, so be sure to arrive early to secure your spot. Each space costs $15 per night and does not cover the monument’s $20 per vehicle entrance fee.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park: Mackinaw City, Michigan
Head to Headlands International Dark Sky Park to stargaze without straying too far from civilization. Despite sitting close to downtown Mackinaw City on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Headlands rarely encounters light pollution, so you’ll enjoy phenomenal views no matter when you visit. Arrive in summer to see the Milky Way and meteor showers, or visit during the spring or autumnal equinox to admire the awe-inspiring northern lights. If you want to supplement your experience with a themed activity, time your trip around one of the park’s events. Depending on the day, you may find nighttime storytelling sessions, star parties, astrophotography nights or stargazing cruises on the events calendar. But remember, entrance fees may apply on days when activities take place. When you’re ready to sleep, stay at the on-site Guest House, a three-story vacation rental that costs $500 or $750 per night (depending on the season). Or, bed down at the beachfront Best Western Plus Dockside Waterfront Inn, which is located less than 4 miles east of the park.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico
Chaco Culture National Historical Park appeals to travelers who want to add a dose of culture to their stargazing vacation. More than 99% of this Dark Sky Park, which was once inhabited by the Chacoan people (an ancestral Puebloan Indian Tribe), falls within a “natural darkness zone,” making it an excellent place to stargaze without light pollution. On Friday and Saturday evenings from April through October, visitors can attend various night sky programs — which the park’s $25 per vehicle entrance fee covers — including presentations about the Chacoan people’s astronomical knowledge. Plus, the park hosts an astronomy festival every September, as well as star parties organized by the Albuquerque Astronomical Society biannually in May and October. The closest major city to the park is Albuquerque, which sits approximately 150 miles southeast, so visitors should consider camping at the on-site Gallo Campground. Located by the visitor center, the campground offers 50 campsites year-round for $15 per night. Reservations are required and must be made a minimum of three days in advance.
Death Valley National Park: California and Nevada
Considered America’s hottest and driest national park, this low-lying area 268 miles east of Sequoia National Park features an arid landscape fitting of its name. Though many people come to Death Valley National Park to hike its numerous trails and see the sites that represented Tatooine in multiple “Star Wars” films, others know to visit at night when thousands of stars are visible (and temperatures are more hospitable). For the darkest skies, the National Park Service recommends arriving during the new moon (when the moon is not visible, which allows for darker conditions). Death Valley’s Ubehebe Crater and Harmony Borax Works locations are particularly popular places for stargazing. Those interested in adding other space-focused activities to their itineraries should time their visits to coincide with the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, a free event that occurs every February or March. Festival activities range from planetarium talks to demonstrations from scientists. Several accommodation options are available inside the park, but for upscale digs once occupied by Hollywood legends like Clark Gable and Marlon Brando, retreat to the AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Inn at Death Valley.
James River State Park: Gladstone, Virginia
Situated approximately halfway between Lynchburg and Charlottesville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, James River State Park boasts 1,561 acres of land ideal for hiking, kayaking and, of course, stargazing. At this Dark Sky Park, which charges $5 per vehicle for entry, you can stargaze on your own with a pair of binoculars or view the night sky through telescopes provided by local astronomy groups during special evening programs. You’ll mostly see stars while visiting, but depending on the time of year, other celestial bodies — including Jupiter’s moons and Mars — may also be visible through a telescope. Once you’ve gotten your fill of the night sky, bed down in one of the park’s overnight facilities. On-site cabins and lodges are only available to rent by the week between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so for shorter stays, plan on camping or reserving the bunkhouse, a two-room trailer that’s available from March to December. Rental rates vary by accommodation, but expect to pay at least $15 per night.
Dinosaur National Monument: Colorado and Utah
Feel as if you’ve traveled back in time during a stargazing trip to Dinosaur National Monument. Formerly a haven for dinosaurs and Indigenous communities, this protected area straddling the northern Colorado-Utah border boasts an impressive collection of fossils and petroglyphs, plus light-free spaces made for stargazing. After paying the $25 per vehicle entrance fee, spend your evening taking in jaw-dropping views of the Milky Way, or attend an evening ranger program — such as a guided full moon hike or a stargazing with telescopes outing — for expert guidance about what you’re seeing. Most stargazing events take place in late August and early September during the Dark Skies Over Dinosaur astronomy festival, so aim to arrive around this time. Exact locations for events vary, but several are hosted at Utah’s Green River and Split Mountain campgrounds, making them two of the monument’s most convenient accommodation options. Green River welcomes visitors for an $18 per night charge, while Split Mountain offers campsites for $6 or $40 per night (depending on the season).
Cherry Springs State Park: Coudersport, Pennsylvania
Dark Sky Parks are harder to come by on the East Coast because of the region’s prevalence of densely populated cities, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any noteworthy options. For optimal stargazing conditions on the Eastern Seaboard, head to Cherry Springs State Park, which is located about 150 miles southeast of Erie, Pennsylvania, and 180 northeast of Pittsburgh. In this Pennsylvania state park, which is free to access, you’ll find incredibly dark skies that attract stargazers in droves. On a clear night, it’s possible to see up to 30,000 stars, as well as celestial bodies like asteroids, Venus and the Omega Nebula. Cherry Springs offers two areas for stargazing. While you could spend a few hours at the Night Sky Public Viewing Area, for the best experience, plan on camping at the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. Available on a first-come, first-served basis to visitors who pay the posted fee at the registration kiosk, the observation field features plenty of space for tents, plus concrete telescope pads and electrical pedestals for your stargazing equipment.
Grand Canyon National Park: Arizona
Few destinations are as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. Located approximately 225 miles north of Phoenix, Grand Canyon National Park boasts more than 1.2 million acres of federally protected land, providing plenty of opportunities to admire the night sky. Chances are you’ll spot star clouds, nebulae, meteor showers and even planets like Saturn, Jupiter and Mars during your visit. Additionally, the park hosts a Star Party, which the $35 per vehicle entrance fee covers, every June that includes various activities, such as guest lectures and telescope viewings. Because of the park’s popularity, numerous accommodation options are available on-site, including six lodges that sit within Grand Canyon Village. All receive rave reviews from recent visitors, though the European-inspired El Tovar Hotel is a perennial favorite. This 78-room National Historic Landmark has welcomed everyone from Albert Einstein to Oprah Winfrey and features a phenomenal canyon rim location.
The Top U.S. Dark Sky Parks
— Great Basin National Park: Nevada
— Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: Okeechobee, Florida
— Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve: Idaho
— Big Bend National Park: Texas
— Natural Bridges National Monument: Lake Powell, Utah
— Headlands International Dark Sky Park: Mackinaw City, Michigan
— Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico
— Death Valley National Park: California and Nevada
— James River State Park: Gladstone, Virginia
— Dinosaur National Monument: Colorado and Utah
— Cherry Springs State Park: Coudersport, Pennsylvania
— Grand Canyon National Park: Arizona
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